Appellate Judge Dan Mancini reviews this ghost story of sorts by a master filmmaker of the French New Wave.
Our review of The Emmanuelle Beart Collection, published November 8th, 2007, is also available.
Julien: We talked…I remember one word.
The Story of Marie and Julien reunites French Nouvelle Vague legend Jacques Rivette and his frequent writing partners Pascal Bonitzer and Christine Laurent with Emmanuelle Béart, the star of their 1991 film, La Belle Noiseusse. Like the earlier film, The Story of Marie and Julien is a delicate piece of storytelling that can be demanding on the viewer. Those with the patience for its idiosyncrasies, however, will discover a richly evocative experience with a surprisingly effective and satisfying plot payoff.
Facts of the Case
One day Julien (Jerzy Radziwilowicz, The Possessed) runs into Marie (Béart) on the street. She's haunted his dreams since he met her at a party a year ago but was unable to pursue her because they both had lovers. Both are now free, and soon Marie has moved into Julien's villa, where she spends her days quietly moving the possessions of the girl from Montauban—Julien's former lover—out of one of the closed-off upstairs rooms. She's meticulously reorganizing the room for reasons unexplained.
Julien, a clocksmith, is involved in a blackmailing scheme. He possesses some certificates, a photograph, and a doll that prove that ancient Chinese silks sold by Madame X (Anne Brochet, Cyrano de Bergerac) are bogus. Madame X believes Julien also has a letter that is in some way precious to her, but he claims he doesn't. Things take a strange turn when a girl in the photograph approaches Marie on the street and gives her the letter with which Madame X is obsessed. When Madame X discovers how Marie has come to possess the letter, she reveals a startling secret about her to Julien.
If Jacques Rivette had written and directed The Sixth Sense, I suppose the result would have been The Story of Marie and Julien. The movie is an unambiguously supernatural genre piece, though a genre piece only a French New Waver could deliver. There's ambiguity aplenty, in other words, just none regarding whether or not the supernatural elements are actually supernatural. But the less detail given about the film's plot, the better. Suffice it to say, one's growing realization that the strange emotional affect of the characters, and dialogue that sometimes comes off as artificial and intellectually abstract, are both servants of plot and not merely pretentious art film conceits is a great source of delight.
Perhaps the greatest indicator of Rivette's mastery of filmmaking is that, while the picture's narrative elements are organized to serve the plot, they also serve the director's thematic preoccupations. The Story of Marie and Julien is about romantic longing, the impermanence of time, and the precariousness of personal identity. In this way, it is directly related to La Belle Noiseusse, though this time Rivette adds ruminations on death to his other thematic explorations. The relationship between Marie and Julien is one of simultaneous connection and isolation. It is a paradox of their relationship that the duo love one another passionately, but are ostensibly strangers. Their interaction with one another becomes the catalyst for self-discovery, but the lovers remain islands, alone together. A similar dynamic exists between Frenhofer and Marianne in La Belle Noiseusse, though this time the relationship is sexual whereas in the earlier film it was purely artistic.
Both Radziwilowicz and Béart are challenged with hefty, complex roles. Their performances are at once reticent and emotionally-charged. Neither is given much in the way of overt drama through which to express character, rather they build our understanding of Marie and Julien through the use of their eyes and bodies, and their careful delivery of the often artificial-sounding dialogue. It's to the actors' credit that we experience the two characters as roundly human. Kudos must be given to Radziwilowicz in particular since we sympathize with Julien despite learning early in the film he's not all that likable a man. Rivette does use a number of intense sex scenes to ramp up the emotional energy. They are the few moments when Radziwilowicz and Béart are able to let loose. The scenes are powerfully explicit, though they contain little nudity and aren't at all preoccupied with the mechanics of sex. In sharp contrast to La Belle Noiseusse, in which Rivette's camera almost fetishizes (in an aesthetic, non-sexual way) Béart's naked body, the director here pushes us in close to the actors' faces during their lovemaking. Within the context of the film's overall emotional reticence, this intimate focus on Marie and Julien during their most intimate moments is emotionally and erotically charged without being prurient. But that's Jacques Rivette: He's a director who knows when to hold back, and when and how to deliver the goods.
It is Rivette's focus on the scarring effects of time that opens the door for the picture's supernatural elements and makes them thematically resonant. That Julien is a clocksmith always struggling, in effect, to repair time, seems like an obvious metaphor when writing about the film. In one line of dialogue, he observes to Marie that old clocks are larger than new ones, that things become smaller as they progress through time. He even has a cat named Nevermore, evoking Poe's "The Raven," and its focus on lost love, death, and longing. Because of the film's two-and-a-half hour running time, all of these elements—seemingly ham-fisted when written about in a review—play with an unexpected subtlety and delicacy. Rivette's film aren't lengthy because he's undisciplined, but because he gives himself the time necessary to produce the sort of thematic density he seeks. All elements of his sprawling film resonate with each other intellectually, emotionally, and viscerally, while notably avoiding concrete statements of theme. Those seeking a cinematic change of pace will find The Story of Marie and Julien—like so many of Rivette's films—evocative and poetic. It is not only intelligent, but willing to assume the same of its audience.
Although the packaging indicates that a full frame presentation of the film is offered on the disc, the transfer is actually 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen. It's another fine piece of work by Koch Lorber. Colors are natural, which means mostly earthy and muted. Isolated scenes that require bolder, more vivid colors—as when Julien and Marie meet in a park at film's beginning, surrounded by beautiful bright green foliage—are appropriately lush and vibrant. The cinematography in Rivette's films is driven by his fascination with visual texture. His locations and wardrobe are usually rustic, natural, and appear lived-in. The photography captures all of this rich detail, and the DVD reproduces it in fine fashion. The one noticeable flaw is haloing from an excess of edge enhancement, all too common in Koch Lorber's releases. The end result is a sharp image, but one that looks a bit more like video and less like film than it should.
Rivette almost never scores his pictures, and The Story of Marie and Julien's drama is noticeably free of musical accompaniment. The DVD's audio is a simple stereo mix of the original French language track. It's clean, clear, and entirely suitable for the straight-forward soundtrack.
Extras are limited to a casual 40-minute video interview with Jacques Rivette, in which the director has plenty of time to discuss his approach to filmmaking and the themes and ideas specific to The Story of Marie and Julien; a video interview with Béart that runs nearly 16 minutes, in which she talks about the demands of working with Rivette, and how her experiences on this film compare with those of La Belle Noiseusse; and a French theatrical trailer.
The Story of Marie and Julien is a solid piece of work by a great filmmaker. It offers thematic power, a surprisingly engaging plot, and great lead performances for those willing to calibrate themselves to the its languid pacing.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Koch Lorber
• Interview with Jacques Rivette
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